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Panthers free agency: Is defensive tackle Star Lotulelei worth 4-years, $40 million?

If you were the Panthers general manager, would you re-sign the veteran defensive tackle to 4-years, $40 million, or would you let him walk in free agency?

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NFL: Buffalo Bills at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In last week’s column I asked if Vernon Butler is ready for prime time. Now it’s time to ask the follow-up question:

If you were general manager of the Carolina Panthers, would you re-sign Star Lotulelei to a 4-year, $40-million contract?

Many of the comments you in the CSR community made about my Vernon Butler post veered away from Butler’s potential to whether or not Carolina should bring back Lotulelei. Based on the Star-related comments, it sounds like Panthers fans are divided on just how valuable Lotulelei is and whether or not the Panthers should use a chunk of their precious salary cap to bring him back.

So, you make the call. If you were general manager, would you give Star Lotulelei an average of $10 million per year over the next four seasons?

The logic of 4-years, $40 million

To estimate what Star’s contract will probably look like, I used Spotrac to review the 2016 and 2017 contracts signed by defensive tackles whose careers have mirrored Star’s thus far. As a frame of reference, Lotulelei is an entrenched starter (started 75 of 76 career games), just turned 28 years old, and has never been named to a Pro Bowl or All-Pro roster. These four players fit roughly the same criteria:

Contracts of players comparable to Star Lotulelei

Name Year Signed Contract Years Total Salary Average/Year Age Career Games Career Starts
Name Year Signed Contract Years Total Salary Average/Year Age Career Games Career Starts
Timmy Jernigan 2017 4 $48.0M $12.0M 25 58 41
Brandon Williams 2017 5 $52.5M $10.5M 29 67 48
Johnathan Hankins 2017 3 $27.0M $9.0M 26 67 56
Michael Brockers 2016 3 33.3M $11.1M 27 91 89
Average NA 3.75 $40.2M $10.7M 27 71 59

Based on these comparable players, let’s assume Lotulelei’s market value is somewhere close to $11 million per season. You are now the GM of the Carolina Panthers and Star’s agent approaches you and says the following:

“I’ve had discussions with several teams and I know I can get Star 4-years, $44 million on the open market, and I’m advising my client to take the biggest contract he can get. But Star’s a loyal guy, he loves it here in Carolina and he wants to stay, but the minimum is 4-years, $40 million. Anything less and he’s gone.”

For the sake of this discussion, let’s not get too hung up on how much of the deal is guaranteed, incentive bonuses, what his cap hit looks like year by year, etc. While those details are important, they can muddy the waters for the broader purpose of this column. Let’s just assume Star’s contract details follow league standards, he remains healthy, and he plays the full four years for $40 million.

Would you sign him, or would you let him walk?

The case to re-sign Lotulelei at 4-years, $40 million

The Carolina Panthers have consistently had one of the NFL’s best defenses since Lotulelei’s rookie season in 2013, and Star has played a big part in the defense’s success. His stats through five NFL seasons aren’t eye-popping (76 games, 141 tackles, 11.5 sacks), but they don’t need to be. Star is more of a space eater who plugs running lanes, collapses the pocket, and engages multiple blockers.

Lotulelei’s presence at the line of scrimmage often frees up Carolina’s linebackers to fly around the field and wreak havoc. The Panthers effective front four also helps mitigate some of the glaring weaknesses in the secondary.

Losing Star could leave a huge void on the defensive line and potentially turn the defensive tackle spot from a position of strength to one that is average, or if not worse. Vernon Butler is still a question mark (at least to me, anyway) and Kyle Love is serviceable, but what happens to the defense if they can’t fill Lotulelei’s shoes? A weakened front four could potentially set off a negative chain reaction across the entire defense.

The case to let Lotulelei leave

Let’s be honest, after three solid years to start his career (2013-2016), Star’s last two seasons have been disappointing. Check out this Pro Football Focus chart showing Star’s run stop percentage falling off a cliff in 2016 (Note, I couldn’t find a similar chart including 2017, but Star’s 2017 overall PFF grade was similar to his 2016 PFF grade):

Pro Football Focus

Yes, this chart shows Star Lotulelei ranked dead last in the NFL in 2016 in run stop percentage for his position, finishing 75th of 75 qualifying defensive tackles.

While PFF’s overall player ratings include some subjectivity, they are helpful benchmarks in assessing a player’s performance, especially for defensive tackles where simple stats like tackles and sacks don’t come close to telling the full story.

In 2016, Star’s PFF grade cratered to 46.9, ranking him 75th out of 127 qualifying interior defensive linemen. In 2017, Star’s PFF grade was 49.5, which is rates him as “poor” for his position. Now, PFF isn’t perfect but at least provides some consistency to a subjective process. Each of us has the right to form our own opinions about Lotulelei’s play and his value based on what we see as we watch the Panthers.

But if you were Carolina’s general manager, you can’t just look at Star’s contract in a vacuum. You have to consider the full implications of managing the salary cap. Star might be worth over $10 million per year on the open market, but can you as Panthers general manager afford to allocate that much cap space to him?

According to Spotrac, Carolina currently has $27.3 million in available cap space. All-Pro Andrew Norwell remains unsigned. There are huge roster holes at safety, defensive end, wide receiver, and running back. They need more depth at corner back and across the offensive line. Allocating about $10 million to Star would severely limit options to shore up other glaring roster issues.

My difficult decision

At 4-years, $40 million, if I were Carolina’s general manager I’d let Star leave, but I wouldn’t be happy about it.

My hope for 2018 would be to use that roughly $10 million in cap space to either re-sign Andrew Norwell (potentially extending Cam Newton’s career) or sign two or three veterans in positions of need. But this decision would put a lot of pressure on Vernon Butler and Kyle Love to make much bigger impacts next year and there is no guarantee they will be up for the challenge. That prospect that fills me with anxiety.

If I were Carolina’s general manager, I’d feel like I couldn’t afford to lose Lotulelei, but I also couldn’t afford to keep him at $10 million per season, on average.

Star’s play over the last two years has fluctuated between good enough and unspectacular. If that trend continues, his $10-plus million dollar cap hit would look worse and worse every year through 2021. He could turn things around, but as of now he has failed to noticeably build on the promising start to his career.

But that’s just me.

Now, what would you do if you were the Panthers general manager? Vote below and explain in the comments.


If you were general manager, would you sign Star Lotulelei to a 4-year, $40 million deal?

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